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The Making of Lemmings (readonlymemory.vg)
262 points by errozero on June 9, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 92 comments

Maybe I was just the perfect age - 12 - when the game came out, but I remember it as pretty much the most formative video game I've ever played. It truly blew my mind that you could have something that seemed so open, even to the extent of being able to modify the actual environment. Lemmings just seemed so different from everything else around, in a way that might be difficult to appreciate nowadays.

I must've played Sim City & Populous prior, but something about the platformer genre and the level of indirection combined perfectly to make this game genuinely unique.

I only found out about Lemmings when I was past my formative years, and it had long existed. But as a game designer, I still think of it as a pretty seminal game. An RTS is just Lemmings with units that will go where you tell them, after all.

However, the core conceit of Lemmings—the feeling of herding a bunch of autonomous agents around, that will do whatever they like (to your detriment) unless you restrict them—is still pretty unexplored. It never spawned its own direct subgenre, unlike its cousins Tower Defense and MOBA. There were a few attempts—I think from Nintendo there was Mario & Wario, and of all things Krusty's Fun House. But generally there's still a lot of unexplored "herding game" mechanics-space.

I wonder why we don't see more of it on mobile? Herding things by tapping them seems obvious.

Go on the Apple app store and search for "lemmings". I found quite a few games that were all based on this premise, the biggest one being "Flockers" by Team 17 (the same people who made "Worms").

Maybe it's more popular than you realized?

It may be! My belief stemmed from the fact that I've heard of no break-out success herding games besides Lemmings itself. Nobody has gotten rich by making a herding game. There is no herding game with merchandise. Etc.

There's a long-running genre of herding things. It is almost always made by UK developers, and is almost always about herding sheep. Usually it's mostly about moving your sheep-repelling character so as to make most of the sheep go where you want to, and usually it's played from a top-down view. Do a Google Images search for "herding game" and you will see a ton of 2D shepherd games. There have been some 3D herders as well.

Lemmings stands out because it's got you herding around something besides sheep. There was a burst of Lemmings-likes on the Amiga that had you herding various other little hapless people, I think there were even a few that gave your little helpless people weapons and made you herd them around to defeat an enemy horde.

Whistler's Brother (Br0derbund, c64/Atari - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lT32TokTYqc) definitely felt like it was an earlier member of the same genre despite you only having to herd one guy around. Possibly because, like Lemmings, it's from a side view.

It feels like I see a Lemmings-like (side view herder, probably without any avatar of the player) every few years. Always from teams with small budgets; nobody has figured out how to justify an AAA herder. I think the last attempt at that I heard of was Core's "Herdy Gerdy" on the PS2. (Which now that I dig up a video of I think I may need to emulate. It looks SUPER CUTE and SUPER CHILL. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SP24_EYuKJE)

"...I think there were even a few that gave your little helpless people weapons and made you herd them around to defeat an enemy horde."

So, like Myth: The Fallen Lords? I loved that game, almost as much as I loved Lemmings.

Maybe a little? That one looks like it's over the line into RTS rather than "save these cute idiots". I'm thinking of half-remembered games that I only ever saw as screenshots in imported issues of Amiga Power.

There were a number of Lemmings clones at the time. Troddlers being a favorite. However, there was so much activity around the Lemmings property itself at the time, that I conjecture the real reason we didn't see more exploration of that space was that the market was burned out on it, and then it was forgotten. Definitely a lot of potential in those mechanics.

I agree, there is a lot more unexplored territory! Lemmings was definitely one of our inspirations for World Zombination. Specifically, the zombie drones that you mutate into special units with different abilities. http://worldzombination.com/

A more recent and relatively successful game in which you don't really control the units is the Majesty series. However, the AI is more sophisticated and the units are trying to be D&D-like adventurers, your main way of control are bounties you place (eg for killing a monster).

I think Pikmin (by Nintendo) is a herding game as well. Never really played it though, just seen tidbits (got Pikmin 3 free I think on Wii U when I registered Mario Kart 8, still haven't tried it!).

There was a great multiplayer Dreamcast game called Chu Chu Rocket which I'd put in this genre.

Exactly - Lemmings is one of the games I still enjoy playing in DOSBox (along with e.g. Lost Vikings, Monkey Island 1+2, …).

If it weren’t for those titles roughly between 1991 and 1994 I’m quite certain I wouldn’t have started to get deeper into DOS and pick up programming later on (remember messing with config.sys and HIMEM.SYS, EMM386 etc to fine-tune memory? using memmaker was so lame :) ).

Last year I was fortunate enough to be working on Meerkatz Challenge, a heavily Lemmings inspired puzzle platformer: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/meerkatz-challenge/id7328540...

I think some of the original Lemmings concepts and controls simply don’t translate to platforms with touch input and high resolution graphics. Too bad that the PC versions don't seem to be available on archive.org.

Scorched earth was another one around that time that had an environment you could destroy. Our token ring network got a lot of use from just those two.

The thing I remember about lemmings was the frantic feeling of them just pouring in and having to time things right.

Agreed-awesome game. I also felt there was nothing like it back when I played it, which made it all the more engaging.

Site seems to be down. Here's a mirror. https://archive.is/t96Pg

Thank you

"But if you ever visit Perth Road in the centre of Dundee, you can see DMA Design’s old office at the far west end. A few hundred yards away is a park called Seabraes and here, in front of the entrance to Dundee’s digital media park, you can find a pillar with three bronze lemmings clambering up and over it."

News article with several pictures of the pillar: http://www.thecourier.co.uk/news/local/dundee/gallery-lemmin...

Ah I wish I had known about this! I lived in Aberdeen for 7 years and, as a lover of Lemmings when I was younger, I would have loved to check this out during one of the many times I drove through Dundee. Very cool.

They're a fairly recent addition. They were originally supposed to be on the side of the original (bright pink) DMA office (along with a blue plaque) but the current owner didn't want them :(

"Composer Tim Wright pulled Lemmings out of the fire with style, bouncily reinterpreting standards like Offenbach’s Galop Infernal and Ten Green Bottles, and adding a touch of class with Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Little Swans."

Since I was about five years old when my parents bought Lemmings, I remember pieces like "Dance of the Little Swans" as "Lemmings music".

I think it's a better choice than 60s/70s music would have been. It doesn't date, and it's less annoying to hear on repeat for four hours straight...


They actually released an Amiga demo disk with the "60's/70's action music" [1] hidden away on it. None of those tunes played when you played the demo, of course.

If you're interested in hearing them, I reverse engineered [2] the music format a while back and converted them to ProTracker modules [3].

[1] https://tcrf.net/Proto:Lemmings_%28Amiga%29#Unused_Music [2] https://bitbucket.org/mindless/sjstomod/src [3] http://www.camanis.net/lemmings/files/rips/music/lemmings_de...

I'll definitely check this out later, thanks.

Having played Lemmings back then on a PC, I'm more fond of the Adlib version of the soundtrack: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PvgncwgPA20

I once applied for a job working for DMA just before Lemmings came out and in the phone call Dave Jones described Lemmings to me. He sounded really excited about it. I thought it sounded totally mad and couldn't for a minute understand why they would leave behind their totally successful series of side-shooters for a bonkers game about suicidal rodents.

More fool me.

Two player lemmings was crazy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VAedz3nWn9E

There was a kind of pixel preciseness with the original lemmings that contributed a lot to this being great, but that somehow seems to have got lost in newer versions..

> There was a kind of pixel preciseness with the original lemmings that contributed a lot to this being great, but that somehow seems to have got lost in newer versions.

The same thing happened to many games, not the least of which being Worms, where pretty much all of the modern versions are at most mediocre.

Worms Armageddon is one the best games I've ever played. I always see a new version and get excited but the new ones always have about half the weapons as Armageddon.

It also have one of the best game theme songs: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6D4Yr3ebNoQ

And let us not forget The Fiddler.

You really haven't lived until you've died by a holy banana donkey armageddon nuke. (Actually, it made some balance fixes cool, like making certain guns more precise/accurate, or to make some more interesting/tactical.)

Because of The Fiddler, I never could understand why there wouldn't merely be oodles more weapons with each new game. Seemed like a no brainer. Oh well.


I played this a lot (on Atari ST - one mouse / one joystick - the mouser definitely had an advantage).

The most amazing thing about it was how you could successfully set traps for your opponent even though they were looking at the same screen but a few inches to the left or right.

Nothing better than them working so hard on getting over some obstacle only to scroll back to the beginning and see most of their lemmings disappearing into a big hole in the ground.

> Two player lemmings was crazy

Yeah it was great on the Amiga! Not sure if it worked well on other machines where you could not connect more than a mouse, though !

I remember it was possible to play Settlers 2 in two-player split screen with two mice in DOS, and it seems possible to recreate in Dosbox: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vfpx0siF5TU

If I remember correctly, the trick here was to not start the mouse driver (mouse.com), but let Settlers' internal mouse driver have control :)

I have no idea about two player Lemmings in DOS. I have never played it, at least.

that's pretty wild - the game shipped it's own custom mouse driver?

Well, define "driver"... This was DOS, so you had to listen to interrupts to catch mouse events. It was more or less standard though, if my memory serves me correctly.

On an Atari ST we were playing with a mouse and a joystick. Still a great experience!

unfair advantage for the mouse guy ? :)

I remember it as one of the best two player games ever, so I guess, given enough time we could master anything :)

I played lemmings on my HP48SX... it worked fine :)

> Two player lemmings was crazy

You should give Lix [1] a try, it's like Lemmings but with up-to-8-player networked multiplayer, and it's open source (CC0). You can probably find some people to play with in #lix on irc.quakenet.org if you're patient.

[1] http://asdfasdf.ethz.ch/~simon/about.php

>> There was a kind of pixel preciseness with the original lemmings

I always wondered what kind of challenges that imposed on the sprite-based consoles of the day like the NES and especially something like the Gameboy.

How it worked was that each lemming was actually treated for collision purposes as if it was a single dot, and that was tested against some kind of bitmap for where there was solid ground.

(I think! I remember, with a friend, implementing our own version of this, and that's definitely how our version worked.)

So this is less realistic than other ways of implementing lemming behaviours, and easier to implement than some kind of more 'correct' collision approach, but gave the gameplay a very nice precise feel.

Wow, never even realized you could save blockers (by digging the ground under their feet away). /me grabs PSP

No, neither did I - always assumed you had to detonate them.

Equally mind expanding - didn't know that DMA went on to create GTA!

Indeed - they became Rockstar North. Their offices are still in Scotland (Edinburgh, though, rather than Dundee).

I wonder if Rockstar can sneak in a Lemmings mini game into GTA V without getting sued by Sony.

Useful trick to finish the more difficult levels with high requirements (in terms of number of lemmings to save)

I'm pretty sure there were levels that you had to do this to complete them (maybe just in "Oh No, more Lemmings"?)

That is what I was hinting at :)

Me neither! I can still remember the layout of that level where you only have two lemmings and you have to save both of them but need to use at least one as a blocker. I could never figure it out and didn't have the internet to look it up at the time! Argh!

Yup. Although, they solved this in more interesting way in Pingus. You can tell blocker to do something else (dig, build, etc.) to unblock it.

Any comment on lemmings being suicidal in popular culture is incomplete if it doesn't credit Disney for chasing a few of the "nasty little rodents" off a cliff.


Very cool, every link! Interesting that the earlier references are to death by self-hanging.

I did like that note in the post "In the popular imagination, for some reason, we interpret this as consistent and collective suicide."

Where "some reason" is because TV told us so. I wonder where the original myth came from. Obviously the population fluctuation gave rise to it - but someone decided they were committing mass suicide. I'd love to know how much of a "fact" it was before the Disney piece.

Great article. I enjoyed the Lemmings games a lot as a kid.

‘Lemmings 3 was a bit crap … more to end our commitment to Psygnosis than actually do a good game,’ admits Dailly.

You gotta give him credit for his honesty. Lemmings was one of many titles that didn't survive the transition to 3D unscathedly. I think it was because a lot of time went into the engine instead of cute handdrawn 2D graphics and map design. Also the 3D camera movements were finicky, while in 2D you could just scroll.

Having worked closely with Mike Dailly, "honesty" doesn't do justice to his ability to speak hard truths :)

I thought Lemmings Revolution (2000) struck a pretty good compromise - it had the requisite 3D graphics that the industry demanded but the playing field was still basically 2D - just wrapped around a cylinder.


Lemmings was terrific. Would it work well on modern touch-based systems? (iPad et al)

Yes, it would work very well. There's a near-perfect homebrew port on the DS[1]. I'm not sure why they haven't licensed it yet.

[1] http://www.mrdictionary.net/lemmings/

It would be tricky because there was an amount of precision required that would be tricky to emulate on touch-based input. Plus you really wouldn't want your finger obscuring the screen at the vital moment! Maybe with a stylus, though.

I'm waiting for a Remaster for years, we had Pingus a while ago and it seems the development is back to the track again. I hope Sony change their mind and make Lemmings again.

1 - http://pingus.seul.org/welcome.html

You might be interested in Lix [1], it's like Lemmings but with networked multiplayer, and it's open source (CC0).

[1] http://asdfasdf.ethz.ch/~simon/about.php

There is a Lemmings clone in DHTML but it seems to have legal problems [1].


I was waiting for that one to pop up :p. That is actually a web game from way before web games, AJAX, or Javascript animations were a thing. That's probably just as important history as the Lemmings game itself is.

Special editions, ports for almost every system that existed, it was really the closest thing to Angry Birds of the time.

There's also "The Complete History of Lemmings" [1] for Mike Dailly's (the guy who inspired the game) take on the making of Lemmings.

[1] http://www.javalemmings.com/DMA/Lem_1.htm

> Already a keen programmer, Jones used his £3000 redundancy cheque to invest in a top-of-the-range Amiga 1000 and begin taking software engineering classes,

If you were already a keen programmer, what would software engineering classes in the 80s have given you?

> to the chagrin of his parents, who saw a better future in his hardware expertise.

Perhaps rightly so, he could have invented mobile telephony for instance :)

> If you were already a keen programmer, what would software engineering classes in the 80s have given you?

A lot of us keen programmers had just learned our way ourselves, and had very little exposure to existing research on things like data structures (a binary tree is nice!), algorithms (bubble sort is not!) or software engineering practices (yes, you really need a version control system and some automated testing!)

So, software engineering classes could give a lot. I remember how clever I felt as a starting freshman, and how humble I had got in about three years' time when my professor took me through the Compilers class. A lot of education and classes is not really teaching you to know things, it's just to teach you to know how much there is to learn.

> algorithms (bubble sort is not!)

I invented bubble sort, independently, as a young self-taught programmer. I remember thinking "Okay, I have a very large list, and I need to sort based on whichever parameter they picked... let's see, how can I accomplish this without running out of memory."

When I learned that sorting was a hot topic in computer science, I remember feeling a little sheepish. When I learned my algorithm was old hat, I felt more sheepish. When I learned it was relatively crap.... Yikes.

Well, at least you came up with an algorithm that was functionally correct.

Also : the world wide web didn't exist yet, you couldn't just visit StackOverflow to get an answer to a problem you had. Formal course work was a great place to communicate with like minded peers and exchange ideas and learn from each other.

Yes, but software engineering was a completely different field back in those days. A lot of it was purely academic, and not of very much practical value for a solo programmer.

Perhaps different but already highly useful. A lot of things would have been good to know before I blundered myself. At least my experience of the said fields (data structures, algorithms, best practices) were that the teaching was sensible and I learned things at the uni but I was not clever enough to come up with all those ideas and principles all by myself, however keen a programmer.

(FWIW, I started programming on a ZX Spectrum).

Q1: calculus, discreet math, planning, algorithms, datastructures... The list goes on...

Ah, discreet math, when you had to work things out really quietly to avoid drawing any attention to oneself. Used to love that.

I was also a fan of discrete math.

Cache from Google (site unreachable at the moment): http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:8O3HvdU...

    ... he also recalls it was partly funded by royalties
    (75p per £25 sale) from DMA’s first two games
They had 3% royalties on their two first games. It seems retrospectively incredibly low compared to what people currently get from app stores.

I agree it was low, but I wonder if their contribution was larger in marketing and distribution of the game? Those were different times...

Physical duplication, packaging, inventory and distribution would have been significant costs borne by a publisher. Retailers would have taken, what, over 50% of the cover price I assume? Kids today with their digital downloads have no idea :) Still, 3% of gross seems low.

Ah, this brings back memories. My parents had acquired a second-hand Amiga 500, which we then hooked up to the green monochrome monitor from our Apple ][e (also acquired used several years previously) - we couldn't afford a 'real' monitor :)

The Amiga came with a big box of floppies, one of which was labelled 'Lemmings.'

I don't believe I've ever played Lemmings in color (I'm having trouble picturing it, actually), but it was still pretty amazing in monochrome. Though, my only basis for comparison at the time was the games I'd played on the Apple ][.

Feeling nostalgic for the soundtrack? This guy did a medley -> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vz0_ZHEDZ-4

The MODs are probably a better way to get the actual sound quality out of your speakers :)

I still remember Lemmings 2: The Tribes when I played it for the first time. I still listen to its music sometimes. It was a masterpiece!

Looking over the history of DMA Design, i am struck by how prolific they were. Yet it never dawned on me that they were Scotland based.

I played Lemmings 2 recently on an Amiga for the first time since about 1992.

There was something magical about that game.

They make great Halloween costumes also.

There was a good cloned game about pigs on mobile recently...

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